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Altman Masterpiece was on view at New-York Historical in 2018 as part of the exhibition Rockwell, Roosevelt & the Four Freedoms.
Sabrina Barton, 11th Grade
Altman Masterpiece is an advertisement created in 1943 for the company B. Altman & Co., a department store that was founded in 1865 by Benjamin Altman and based in New York City. The ad appeared in an issue of Vogue magazine from September 15, 1943. The advertisement is in black and white, and depicts a woman in what is likely meant to be a street, though it more closely resembles a small, spare white-painted room. The woman has shoulder length blonde hair which is neatly combed back and is wearing some makeup, although her face is shadowed. She has a tall, slim build. She is wearing a dress suit, which consists of a loosely fitted blazer with full-length sleeves, and a skirt that goes to her mid-calf. There are four, large, decorative buttons closing the blazer. The blazer has a v-neckline, which reveals a white blouse beneath it. The woman holds a large clutch in her right hand. She rests her left hand on the “Freedom of Worship” poster on the wall next to her, which says “BUY WAR BONDS” in bold letters along the bottom. Another poster, “Freedom of Speech,” is visible behind her. The bottom of the paper, which has a small text description of the suit, gives some technical details: the suit is described as slim in design. It is made of wool and is available at Altman’s in scarlet, purple, silver-blue, or royal red. It costs $89.95 and can be found on the third floor of the Altman’s suit shop in New York City.
This advertisement was targeted towards young women, the main demographic that read Vogue magazine. It was also likely targeted towards middle and upper class women, who would have been able to afford the high prices of Altman’s. The model in the ad exemplifies this ideal consumer, who is a beautiful, well-off white woman. This dress is a prime example of women’s clothing at the time: with its boxed shoulders and loosely fitted silhouette, it showcases the clear masculine influences on 1940s womenswear. Whereas clothing from the 1930s had a more typically feminine silhouette, with an accentuated waist and softer shoulders, women’s clothing in the following decade left behind these more typical signs of femininity. Women’s blazers had very similar necklines and cuts as men’s blazers at the time, and the looser fitting skirts of the era look very similar to wide-leg trousers that men wore. Aside from stylistic differences, 1940s women’s clothing also allowed a much higher degree of mobility, with less restriction in the arms and legs.
The popularity of clothing styles that allowed easy movement shows us that women had very active, important roles in the war effort. Due to the fact that so many of the able-bodied men were away at war, women started to take up the jobs that men had traditionally held. Many women worked in lower-level jobs, such as in factories manufacturing clothing and utilities, and some worked in higher-level offices overseeing companies and war production (all jobs that required constant movement). During the war, women were able to have jobs that were never open to them previously, and as a result broke down many of the gender barriers in employment that were prevalent at the time. In addition, women’s clothing in the 1940s was heavily influenced by military uniforms: the blazer in Altman Masterpiece has a similar cut and collar to the jackets that soldiers wore. The war was reflected even in civilian fashion, which shows what a large part of the public consciousness it was.
In general, women played an instrumental role in keeping the home front functioning and able to support the ongoing war. With men away, women were responsible for raising the next generation. Further, women, as well as all who weren’t currently at war, supported the effort through donating money to war bond drives (seen advertised on the posters within the B. Altman & Co. ad). War bond drives, organized eight times throughout the war, raised money by getting civilians to loan money to the effort. Essentially, a civilian would donate money to the cause with the promise that at the end of the war they would get their money back. War bonds were hugely successful, in large part due to the intensity with which they were advertised. Posters advertising them were plastered throughout the streets. They were also featured in other advertisements (like Altman Masterpiece) and were all over magazines because some companies donated their advertising space to the government. This was a particularly interesting advertising tactic employed throughout the war. Following the Great Depression, the U.S. was not succeeding economically: the economy had crashed in 1929, leaving many of the country’s citizens in extreme poverty. Although the war actually helped the economy to recover (the structure of a wartime economy helped curb the rampant inflation), many families during war time had to make do with less pay (with men away, women were often the breadwinners of the house, however female workers were paid less than their male counterparts). Very few people had money to spend on luxuries, such as fancy appliances, many of which had been banned due to war rationing and restrictions on production. This spelled out trouble for companies selling these more expensive products, especially considering that they too had suffered during the Depression. These companies knew they would sell next to nothing to American consumers, but they also knew that if they wanted to recover after the war, they would have to keep their brand name in the public consciousness. Therefore, they decided to donate advertising space to the U.S. government to advertise war bonds. This benefited the war effort by raising awareness for the war bond drives, and also benefited the businesses by keeping their name in the public consciousness and by showing that they were patriotic.
The model in Altman Masterpiece is portrayed as patriotic: she touches the war bond posters approvingly, as if she herself has bought war bonds. She also looks at the images of Rockwell’s four freedoms longingly, as if she is willing them to come true in the country’s future. She almost looks mournful, as if she is thinking of all of the soldiers at the front, and is hoping that the war bonds will be enough to help them win the war. The ad paints the model as the ideal American woman, who is tall and beautiful, and who supports her country. It very subtly connects the dress suit to patriotism: it conveys to its young female audience that if they buy this dress, they will become this ideal woman. In a broader sense, this ad connects consumerism to patriotism, a link that would only grow stronger over the following decades.
Altman Masterpiece also shines light on the economic situation in the U.S. in 1943. The dress being advertised is clearly very elegant and fancy. The small description on the bottom explains that the dress is made out of wool, which was a more expensive fabric. The dress also has large, decorative buttons on it and was very highly priced for the time period. The fact that more expensive, ornate pieces of clothing such as this one were being advertised shows us that the U.S. economy was doing much better in 1943 than it had been a decade earlier. During the war, people were able to sustain on less, and the wartime economy introduced millions of new jobs, helped businesses to recover from the Depression, and also made people’s wages after taxes much higher. This dress’s place in Vogue magazine shows us that enough people, even during the war, were able to buy expensive clothing, and also shows us that a lot of Americans weren’t too poor to think about and consider fashion, which is a luxury within itself.
The details on the dress also show us that the U.S. economy was faring far better than the British economy that same year. Starting in 1941, the British government instituted a rationing program across the country, which also applied to fashion. The use of many fabrics was extremely limited, as was the use of metal. Some of the more notable effects of the rationing were that the use of elastic in clothing was banned, with the exception of women’s undergarments, and large cuffs on men’s trousers were banned to preserve cloth. Almost every British citizen was part of a nation-wide “coupon” system which required that all brands sell clothes at a uniform price using coupons (for example, most dresses cost 10 to 20 coupons). As a result, better quality clothing was available at lower prices. However, the strict regulations on fashion also caused many companies to come out with similar, redundant styles, which British women were unhappy with. Finally, the British government worked with several designers to create a state-sanctioned line of clothing, which, although utilitarian looking, was well accepted. A dress like the one advertised in “Altman Masterpiece” could never have been sold in Britain (at least not to the average person using the coupon system) because of its extravagance. The wool used in the dress would have been preserved for jackets or sleeping bags for soldiers, and the metal in the buttons would have been rationed for ammunitions. U.S. fashion designers had much more liberty than British designers, who had to abide by the myriad of regulations. Although rationing took place in the U.S. during the war, it focused mainly on food. Fabric was lightly regulated, and the only clothing item that was significantly impacted by rationing were shoes (rubber was heavily conserved). Britain’s resources were strained by years of war, whereas the U.S. was much less worried about preserving resources. This dichotomy between American fashion and British fashion shows that America’s geographical distance from the war and the fact that it joined the war later afforded it more liberties on the home front.
This ad also gives us insight into the varied roles that women played in WWII, both at home and closer to the action. As mentioned earlier, women in the U.S. took over the jobs that men left behind, and were also responsible for bringing up their families. Women also played important roles on the warfront: many were nurses, and some were part of the WAAC, or the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps.
The founding of the WAAC was revolutionary, because it was the first officially recognized regiment of American women. The women in the WAAC dispersed through the different branches of the Army: many ended up in the Air Force (AF), working as radio operators and cryptographers, or in the Service Forces, doing engineering work and handling personnel files. Although initially hesitant about accepting women into its ranks, the Army Ground Forces (AGF) eventually employed some WAACs. The environment in the AGF was more hostile to women than the AF was, which led to many of the WAACs feeling unwelcome. Many in the AGF ended up doing office work, but a few lucky WAACs were selected to accompany army corps abroad for missions in South America and Africa. However, the majority of WAACs never left the U.S.; the first unit of WAACs to reach Europe only arrived in 1943, two years after America joined the war.
Initially male soldiers were unhappy with the idea of women fighting in the war because it upset the traditional gender roles and ideas of femininity and masculinity that heavily dictated how society was organized. Both soldiers and civilians spread rumors about the WAACs, including that many of them were prostitutes, which heavily damaged their reputations. Aside from threatening accepted ideas on gender roles, male civilians who did not want to be “freed” up for combat by the WAACs disliked them, as did civilians living near army bases who were upset with the idea of women taking over so many jobs. Overall, the WAACs played an instrumental role in the war, and showcase the many different ways that women contributed to the war effort, despite the opposition and difficulties that they faced.
Overall, Altman Masterpiece sheds light on several aspects of life in America during WWII, such as the economy, ideas of patriotism, fashion, women’s roles, and ideas of gender. WWII was a period of change for the country in terms of social movements, and overall marked an improvement in the country’s outlook for the future compared to the Great Depression. Although there was a lot of positive change in the country throughout the war, there was also pushback, as seen in the case of the public’s reactions to the WAACs. Much of the progress in terms of women’s employment that was achieved during the war was reversed again in the 1950s, once men were able to fill their old positions again. However, the 1940s marked the point where America started to define itself as the country we know today, and also saw many of the movements and ideologies that are the most applicable today, such as women’s rights and consumerism, gain even greater recognition.
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